Cults as authoritarian high control groups

Cults are authoritarian high control groups. Their study may shed light on the less nakedly pronounced dynamics of more accepted forms of authoritarian control. 

For a scholar of authoritarianism, busted cults offer an intriguing insight into the underlying dynamics of authoritarian control for obvious reasons. They utilize the same power tools as less extreme and more usual forms of authoritarian control do – but in a more pronounced and less deniable manner. So the recent avalanche of cult-busting documentaries and the slowly burgeoning literature of cults are an irresistible source of research.

It all started when the leader of a relatively new cult, NXIVM, got arrested and two documentaries about the group were released in quick succession. Given the series’ success among quarantine-hit populations all networks and streaming services started hunting for their own cult-documentaries. In November 2020, Netflix acquired Leah Remini’s docuseries on scientology, catapulting the phenomenon into the public eye like never before. (These posts also benefit from a series of other documentaries and books listed in the references.)

The unique characteristics of NXIVM and its downfall allowed for plenty of actual footage of the cult’s inner life to exist. As a consequence we don’t just have talking heads retroactively explaining and remembering their earlier actions – we also have footage of them at the height of their enthusiasm. (Naturally, these people would use the documentaries to paint a more flattering and innocent picture of themselves than they actually were, but it is still more than what we have from less cinematically inclined groups.) We will take NXIVM’s example as a starting point.

This NYT timeline is a good summary – but to get a sense of how it felt like for those who lived it, you can watch the two documentaries in the subject: The Vow on HBO and Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult on Starz. The NXIVM story is older though, it started way back in the 90s. One of the self-help guru’s first victims, Toni Natalie, has published a book that allows a peek into the past and a more complete picture: The Program: Inside the Mind of Keith Raniere and the Rise and Fall of NXIVM. Other former members have also written books, but there are overlaps with the documentaries. 

NXIVM is a great reference point because it was a relatively new, first-generation cult – unlike its role model, scientology. It has thus not had access to the devastatingly powerful indoctrination tool of parental authority over second-generation members. Old churches and even scientology have that tool at their disposal.

NXIVM’s unimpressive garden gnome of a leader was also stupid enough to believe his own tale about not being a religion (it was his go-to response to cult accusations) and failed to register his cult as a church in the US. Hence getting busted. Had NXIVM done the scientology thing and incorporated as a church, it would have been untouchable. Forget taxes. It would have been above the law for all intents and purposes and judges would never have dared to pronounce judgment over its practices (like branding people) had they been claimed to be in their ecclesiastical canon. 

It still took years (for some victims, decades) to fight against the group and to reveal the mind control regime at its core. Second-generation and older cults, especially ones that are armed with religious privileges can keep their practices sheltered from law and justice for decades and centuries. The older they are, the more unquestionable they get, shrouded in the cloak of being self-evident. The oldest ones are regarded as revered parts of the social fabric – partly because they have dozens of generations of indoctrination behind them, but also because their members have infiltrated high places.

Even juvenile little NXIVM had an aspiration to give the next president of the United States. Scientology is famously using the technique of infiltration to keep law enforcement at bay. But they still have to be shy about it. The oldest religious control groups, on the other hand can openly brag about their members infiltrating high places. Everyone knows how many protestants or catholics serve in high offices, pointing at the uneasy conclusion that their cult membership somehow influences their work, and not just the laws they are supposed to uphold. Ethnic groups follow the same method, proving that the dogma of sectarianism is only superficially different from that of the ethnic myth. And the political control groups of based on secular belief systems, political parties, are openly competing to put their members in high positions. That is their literal goal.

Dumb little NXIVM is also a great starting point because it recruited successful people. Not bumbling idiots, losers, lost souls like many religions and exploitative groups do, not the kind of intellectually challenged crowd that is associated with joining cults – making it easier to cults to recruit because people are overconfident that it cannot happen to them. This is why it is such a great place to listen to former members explaining what they saw when they joined the group. What they thought they were joining. 

The types and methods of cults are varied. It doesn’t matter whether they organize around a self-help “technology” (NXIVM, scientology, or cults based on a drug rehab method), a belief system (churches and ideologies) or a way to interfere in other people’s lives (militant groups, political parties and states). Control and brainwashing can also be found at home, in relationships – and it doesn’t always cause harm to anyone, or when it does, the victims don’t always see it.

What happens in cults is just the most extreme expression of what happens in less tightly controlled groups. Some parts of it, and to some degree, exist elsewhere. And their goal is the same: to use your resources (broadly speaking) for their own goals, even when that goal is just to keep existing, to stay powerful, to keep meddling. 

For the purposes of this series, we will adopt a functional definition of control groups, based on psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s work (in the book ‘Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism’, and his paper ‘Cult Formation’). According to Lifton, the three major criteria for a destructive cult are: 

  1. a charismatic leader
  2. coercive persuasion or thought reform
  3. exploitation of members 

And even if the control they exert is not totalitarian, even if it leaves some of the victims’ resources to the victims, even if not all members see themselves as followers of the leader, lesser control groups will also be discussed. Looking at the most intense forms of cult behavior and understanding them would give an insight into the control mechanism that affects less visibly impacted individuals.

In the series we will discuss:

  • What cult definitions tell about those who propose them
  • How to trap well-meaning seekers by the force of their desire to do good
  • Military is not a cult, but it should give you a pause about the idea of a Greater Cause
  • Why are so many people willing to suck up to just a guy? It’s always just a dude. 
  • No one will “liberate” you for you. 
  • How Q harvested the best in so many people
  • Why is every cult so keen to be regarded as a family – and what does it tell us about families
  • State in a state, society in a society: How the religious privileges amendment upended the Enlightenment project of the US Constitution
  • Why people are willing to do anything – except thinking for themselves and accept the limitations of their own knowledge. And why they don’t want to own themselves. 
  • The poverty of leaders’ ambitions. Why is it always sex (with children)?
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